The battle of Borodino takes place on the 26th of August. Fighting this battle makes no sense for either side. In fact, both sides are brought closer to realizing their biggest fears: the destruction of Moscow (for the Russians) and the destruction of an entire army (for the French). Only later do historians offer ingenious explanations for why the generals, swept up involuntarily in world events, agreed to do battle.
The battle of Borodino was the pivotal battle of the entire French invasion, and the deadliest of the campaign. But Tolstoy’s biggest point is that the battle was senseless, going against the best interests of both sides and later justified on shaky grounds.
Though historians later claim that Kutuzov sought the best possible battle position at Borodino, the truth is that he might have picked a better position from a map at random. In fact, the Russians had barely started fortifying this position on the day of battle. In reality, when the French unexpectedly attacked the Russians at the Shevardino redoubt on August 24th, the Russians were forced to pull back the army’s left wing and fortify that wing wherever it happened to end up. The Russian commanders were slow to recognize the weakness of the left wing and had to transfer troops from right to left during the course of battle. This is how the Russians wound up fighting the French on scarcely fortified ground they didn’t choose while twice as weak as their opponents.
Tolstoy studied army positions closely, not just for historical accuracy, but to convey some of the multiplicity of factors that affect battle outcomes, wars, and fates of nations. One of historians’ later justifications is that Kutuzov chose advantageous ground for fighting the battle, but Tolstoy argues that, actually, circumstances forced this position on Kutuzov. Kutuzov was more concerned about defending the right wing, nearer the road to Moscow, so the left wing, dislodged by the earlier attack on Shevardino, was left vulnerable.
On the morning of August 25th, Pierre drives out of Mozhaisk. He watches a train of carts being driven up the hill into the town; they’re filled with wounded, jostling men. A singing cavalry regiment blocks the road, halting both Pierre and some of the wounded. Pierre chats with a soldier until he’s free to move on.
Fitting his character, Pierre shows up for the battle filled with patriotic fervor and no clear objective. In sharp contrast to the idle, courteous world of the city, he arrives directly in the midst of the unpredictable, chaotic battlefield.
After three miles, he finally sees a doctor he knows, who advises him to speak directly to Kutuzov if he hopes to join the battle. The doctor is harried because he anticipates 20,000 wounded in the coming battle, and the army isn’t prepared. Pierre tries to grasp this idea. How can so many men—now healthy and even cheerful—be facing imminent death? He keeps going until he reaches a crowd of muzhik militiamen digging on a hill. The sight of the peasants impresses Pierre, reminding him of something the soldier had said earlier—that “they want the whole people to throw their weight into it.”
Pierre explicitly poses the question Tolstoy asks more subtly throughout the novel: how can seemingly sane, happy human beings throw away their lives in combat? What’s more, there’s a feeling that all of Russia is pouring its strength into the effort, as Pierre reflects when he sees the men digging. The unspoken question is whether all this will prove to have been worth it.
Pierre climbs the hill in the late morning sun, overlooking the village of Borodino and the winding road that leads to Valuevo, where Napoleon is currently based. A forest sits on the horizon, a monastery bell tower visible in its midst. Pierre had expected to see a battlefield with clearly distinguishable troop positions, but instead he sees a varied, confusing landscape in which he can’t tell Russian troops apart from the enemy.
Pierre is surprised by the chaotic setting. He’d pictured enemies situated in clear opposition to one another, yet he sees something quite different—an indistinguishable mass of people. This suggests that human distinctions between friend and enemy are arbitrary, and more broadly, that war has no discernible meaning.
Pierre talks with a nearby officer, who points out the enemy troops. The officer isn’t sure of the village’s name— “Burdino or something.” He points out the various fortifications and the army’s right flank, but he struggles to clearly explain the position of the left flank; it’s been shifted back, but he thinks it unlikely that battle will occur there.
The officer’s garbling of “Borodino” is ironic, because this relatively obscure spot was to become one of the most famous places in Russian history. His opinion about the left flank position is another instance of dramatic irony, since that position turned out to be so decisive after all.
As Pierre goes back down the hill, he sees a church procession coming from the direction of Borodino. The procession carries the icon of the Smolenskaya Mother of God. Soldiers run from all directions to bow before the icon. The crowd stops to hold a prayer service. Pierre watches the solemn, devout faces with interest. Kutuzov, Bennigsen, and their suite join the service. When it’s over, Kutuzov heavily bows and kisses the icon, with the lower ranks jostling behind.
The icon of the Virgin Mary, made in 1648, is a copy of an eighth-century Byzantine icon which was believed to be miracle-working. The icon was kept in one of Moscow’s holiest sites, the Iverskaya Chapel, until the Soviet era. The procession on the eve of battle demonstrates the importance of Orthodox piety in Russian national identity.
In the middle of the crush of people, Boris Drubetskoy approaches Pierre. When Pierre explains his desire to take part in the battle, Boris invites Pierre to follow Count Bennigsen, to whom Boris is attached. Boris senses that, no matter the battle’s outcome, Bennigsen will emerge looking better than Kutuzov and rising to prominence as a result.
As usual, Boris is focused on how the war might impact people’s reputations and standing, not who wins or loses and what that might mean for Russia as a whole.
Kutuzov notices the crowd surrounding Pierre and wants to see him. On his way, Pierre spots Dolokhov and learns that his old enemy has been demoted to the ranks. As Pierre and Boris approach Kutuzov, Boris makes a pointed remark about the heroic militiamen and their readiness for death, hoping to be overheard by Kutuzov. After greeting the commander in chief, Pierre crosses paths with Dolokhov, who offers his hand and asks Pierre’s forgiveness for their former misunderstanding. The men embrace. Then Boris invites Pierre to join Count Bennigsen’s suite in riding along the line.
Before accompanying Bennigsen’s suite, Pierre has a notable encounter with a former enemy. Though Dolokhov has been a wicked and remorseless character in the past, now he shows every sign of sincerity, suggesting that war doesn’t inevitably change people for the worse.
Bennigsen rides across a bridge into the village of Borodino, then turns left and climbs a high barrow onto what will become known as the Raevsky redoubt. Pierre doesn’t pay much attention to it, not knowing that this will be the battlefield’s most important spot for him. Then they ride through rye fields until they reach a fortification, from which they can view the Shevardino redoubt. Yesterday the redoubt belonged to the Russians, but now it’s occupied by the French. Pierre sees horsemen on the redoubt and tries to guess which of them might be Napoleon.
The Raevsky redoubt was a huge earthwork topped with cannons; it defended the center of the Russian position, and over the course of the battle, it changed hands multiple times. Now, in the calm before battle, it appears inconspicuous to Pierre.
Pierre listens carefully to Bennigsen’s explanation of the troops’ position, but he finds it difficult to understand. The group rides through some woods and finds an unoccupied hill. Bennigsen commands that troops be positioned atop the hill instead of gathering at its base. Pierre agrees with the general’s opinion about defending this hill, yet because he can understand it, he wonders how such an obvious mistake could have been made. Neither Pierre nor Bennigsen knows that the troops had been put there in order to ambush the advancing French. Bennigsen moves the troops without consulting Kutuzov.
Pierre isn’t a soldier and doesn’t have a natural eye for a battlefield, so when a problem seems obvious to him, he assumes there must be crucial details he’s missing. In this case, he’s right: there’s a reason the Russian soldiers are clustered at the foot of the empty hill, but Bennigsen, assuming his read of the situation is correct, repositions the troops to his liking. It’s an example of miscommunications and assumptions having an impact on battle outcomes, even more than clear orders do.